Thursday 26 February 2009

What's the colour of worry?

The Big Move is getting closer, and I'm starting to stress about it. While I know I should be thinking about the Bigger Picture - our new life in an exciting new world, Obama's America - I keep waking up at 3am in a cold sweat thinking of some new horror. So I thought maybe writing my fears down would help me address them......

First of all, I think they can be divided into three levels of severity. In fact, in the spirit of 'traffic light' warning labels so popular these days, let's call them red, amber and green....

Red Alert worries. (Basic 'to do' stuff)

1. Make final decisions on whether to put stuff into storage, take it with us or leave it in the house. Despite having made a house inventory, we still can't agree and I foresee a last minute panicked stuffing of everything into the cellar and hoping that our hypothetical 'tenants' don't object....
2. Making sure house is ready for rental. Co-ordinate Ivo the electrician, Tom the builder, Mark the boiler man and Gregor the decorator not only to do their stuff but actually agree with each other about whether things are legal. If only it were possible to get them here at the same time. Maybe I should invite them to a party....?
3. Actually renting out the house to hypothetical 'tenants'... plus, will 'tenants' will be able to cope with our idiosyncratic house? Will they mind that there is no door on the shower room? Will they understand the quirks of the central heating dial (I certainly don't). And what happens when they see the mice, who will inevitably return?
4. Finding packers and organising shipping of stuff to the US (but what stuff? That is the 64,000 dollar question...)

Amber alert (not so urgent, but longer-term domestic worries)

1. Can I cope with being full-time, 7 day a week Mum to the Littleboys for the forseeable future?. I looked after each of them as babies for almost a year, but since then they've been at nursery three days a week. On the days I do spend with the two of them, unless we have a regimented activity plan they tend to go nuts and wreck the house. Will I be tearing my hair out within weeks of our arrival?
2. Also on this note, will the Littleboys live off spaghetti bolognese, hummus and baked potatoes forever? Litltleboy 1 is incredibly fussy, so I tend to give the same little repertoire of meals that I know they will eat, in rotation, relying on the nursery to feed them a more varied diet involving green vegetables and suchlike. Now I am going to be in sole charge of giving them a balanced diet. Help!
3. How soon will I be able to find a cleaner? I hate housework (sadly, the result of a privileged, expat childhood with maids - you can blame my parents) and am no domestic goddess. At the moment I have a cleaner for three hours a week. Although with the boys I have no choice but to clean the kitchen constantly, I never lift a finger in the rest of the house unless a total disaster strikes (ie. wee on the carpet, drinks poured on the sofa - actually, thinking about it, all those are pretty well daily occurrences with the boys). And I haven't done any ironing since 2005, as I delegated this, too, to the cleaner when Littleboy 1 was born.

Green Alert (silly stuff that nevertheless hovers at the edge of my radar....)

1. Will we be forced to own two cars, one of which is bound to be a gas guzzling station-wagon, because it will be impossible for The Doctor to walk to work?
2. How soon will the Littleboys start calling me 'Mom', insisting on wearing baseball caps and talking with American accents?
3. How will we cope without Cbeebies? Here, I convince myself that Cbeebies is educational, public service broadcasting so it doesn't matter if the Littleboys watch it for hours on end. But I can't say the same for crappy cartoons. Does this mean I will have to (horrors) stop them watching telly altogether?
4. Can we get Shreddies and Weetabix in the US? I already know I can't get Earl Grey tea and Marmite - but what other brands am I forgetting?
5. If I want to buy wine in America, do I have to go to a special shop that only sells it in a brown paper bag? Or is that just in Florida?

Please, please, someone tell me to get a grip and reassure me that it's going to be fun.....

Monday 23 February 2009

Are grannies the new nannies?

Walking the streets of Nappy Valley recently, I've noticed something odd: the average age of the people pushing prams seems to have increased by around 30 years. Hordes of grey-haired ladies appear to be looking after small children at the local cafes, and I've spotted more than one sixtysomething couple dropping off tots at the Littleboys' nursery. It's not, I think, down to an IVF-fuelled baby boom among the older generation. My theory is that grannies are new nannies.

Yup, the recession is biting and Ana from Poland, Kirstie from New Zealand or Mila from Bulgaria have been replaced by Vera and Stanley, imported from Esher to look after their grandchildren while their children are at work.

The typical granny/nanny wears an expression that is half-indulgent and half resigned to their fate. There are some who are obviously thrilled to be spending so much time with their grandchildren, but there are others (particularly the middle class, Barbour-wearing variety) who would obviously so much rather be spending their retirement on an upmarket tour of India or a cruise in the Baltic than filling little Evie's Anyway Up Cup with apple juice and hauling a Bugaboo around the Common. Sure, they love their grandchildren, but this wasn't quite how they envisaged the golden years.

Having seen their houses rocket in value over the past few decades, their generation have enjoyed a period of wealth that mine will never experience. But suddenly their investments aren't generating so much income, and their children are demanding their help with childcare in order to keep payments up on their massive mortgages.

In truth, I've always been rather jealous of people who can rely on their parents for childcare. The Doctor and I both lost our mothers before we had children, and while my father is a very good babysitter, and great with the Littleboys, I think even he might baulk at being asked to look after his riotous grandsons all week. (The Doctor's father, meanwhile, would be quite appalled by the idea).

This leaves us with no other option than to pay out when we need childcare. We pay extortionate nursery fees, and when we went to Paris for our 10th wedding aniversary last year, we paid a trusted babysitter to look after the Littleboys for the whole weekend. In contrast, I know of several couples whose parents and in-laws take it in turns to look after the children during the week so that they don't have to pay out for nursery. Then there are othes who invite their parents or in-laws on holiday entirely so that they can help with the kiddies (although there is a tendency to complain about them vociferously afterwards and wonder whether it was worth it).

I can't decide whether using grannies as nannies is a fantastic idea, or whether I actually feel a little bit sorry for these grandparents. I like the idea of extended family stepping in at times of need (and I'm sure that the recent study that said nurseries were better than grandparents at looking after kids was wrong). But I do wonder if some people are just cutting back on childcare costs so that they can still afford their 4x4 and expensive summer holiday. Granny slave labour?

Friday 20 February 2009

Three cheers for free

It's a chilly old climate we're living in - and I don't mean the weather. The other day I had a sad little email from a local parenting magazine I occasionally write for; they are calling it a day due to the harsh economic conditions. Meanwhile, at the magazine publishing empire where I once worked, titles are closing left, right and centre, with titles that have been carefully nurtured for 20 odd years unceremoniously consigned to the dustbin.

But there is light at the end of the media tunnel. Online and 'social' media - that's us bloggers too - is flourishing, and advertisers are starting to plough their cash into the internet. And so I was pleased to be asked by a new local website to contribute some of my bloggy musings to their content.

(Well, I think they had to ask me really - the name of the site is

Anyway, if you're a southwest Londoner, take a look, as it's full of useful information for parents about babysitters, birthday parties and even reviews of all the local schools - the sort of information that, if you're me, you never actually know about but pick up from earwigging on other mummies' conversations.

All this is for free - which brings me to another thing I've been writing, an article about free media for an industry magazine. (Bear with may sound dull, but it's actually more interesting than you think).

Think about it. A generation ago, you bought your daily or local newspaper, and that was how you got your news and information. You bought your records in a shop, you paid your TV licence to watch telly.

But now, we are living in a generation that expects everything for free: from free newspapers on the tubes and buses (yes I know much of it is dross, but it's helpful if you've forgotten your book, stops you from having to avoid eye contact with the creepy sales boy opposite) to hundreds of digital channels via Freeview (hurrah for CBeebies - our parents just had Playschool to entertain us with).

You can look at virtually any newspaper online for free. Whether this is good for me is debatable (I'd never buy the Mail, but I sometimes take a guilty peek at their website to get the gossip) but, even so. There are brilliant sites where you can listen to music for free - I listened to the whole of the new Lily Allen album online the other day while working (so if my media feature ends up full of cheeky sexual innuendoes, blame Lily). There's all the video on demand, which is great for entertaining both us and the kids - Littleboy 1 is especially fond of getting me to search YouTube for clips from Madagascar. And, of course, we have all these fantastic blogs to read - so much better than the majority of articles in women's magazines.

Of course, somebody's ultimately paying, usually advertisers, but hey, who cares? Most of us can spot an ad a mile off anyway. So I say a big hurray for free. Let's make the most of it, before someone starts asking us to pay.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Desperate, or just Mad?

My Valentine's card this year came from Brooklyn. No, I haven't got a secret admirer Stateside; The Doctor has just returned from there, having been on a recce for our new life in Long Island.

Yes, we really are going, in about three months' time; he has just spent a few days meeting his new team and scouting out places to live. He drove around with an estate agent (mildly putting his foot in it with her by describing one of the most famous upscale shopping boulevards in America as 'a bit of strip mall' . "Well, I suppose I did notice Prada," he confessed to me on the phone), and they identified some potential locations on the Island. There's a promising-sounding district that has a park, duckpond, good schools and a 'magnificent view of Manhattan' from the nearby coast. Which sounds just the place.

And now it's getting closer, I'm realising more and more that I have absolutely no idea what my life in the States will be like. I've not spent much time there, so all my ideas about both New York and American suburbia are gleaned from TV; from Friends and Sex and the City to Desperate Housewives, Mad Men (set 40 years ago, but even so), shows I watched growing up such as The Wonder Years and countless films (er, American Beauty, The Stepford Wives etc).

So which of these stereotypes will my life for the next two years resemble? I began to wonder...

Well, we can safely rule out Sex and the City. Although I might conceivably have had something in common with Carrie Bradshaw had she married Big at 25, moved to the suburbs and had two kids, I rather think our paths have diverged. Sipping Cosmpolitans with girlfriends and going on designer shoe-shopping sprees is going to be a little hard with the Littleboys in tow. Ditto Friends. While they might put up with toddler tantrums in the Clapham Starbucks, I can't see Gunther in Central Perk being too sympathetic....

And anyway, we won't be living in Manhattan. Desperate Housewives will be more like it. So far, my emails to work contacts Stateside have ascertained that the work situation for business journalists is pretty dire at the moment, so I may well be taking an enforced career break. But which of the Housewives would I be? I wouldn't mind being Gabby, prancing around in strappy vest tops and miniskirts and shagging the gardener. (Er, note to The Doctor: joke.) I'm just not houseproud enough to be Bree, and hopefully I'm not the ultra-irritating single mom Susan. No, I fear I will probably most resemble Lynette, the frustrated career woman trying to control her badly-behaved troop of small boys.....

Don't get me started on what The Doctor's life might be like. I am a big fan of US medical dramas....ER (although that 'jumped the shark' as they say, several years ago) Gray's Anatomy, and especially House. So will he be breaking into patients' apartments to find out if they are suffering from a rare fungal infection? Drilling holes in people's heads on car ferries? Or ordering attractive interns about? (That would only be OK if he were to make some friends at the hospital who look like Dr McDreamy from Gray's).

But let's just hope that while he's out at work, I will not be going slowly loopy, like Don Draper's wife in the brilliant Mad Men. She may have perfect, Grace Kelly looks but her marriage is imploding, she's getting her rocks off with the tumble dryer and you just have an awful feeling it's going to end badly....

Monday 9 February 2009

Grrr...Observer Woman

The Doctor's away, the car alarm has mulfunctioned, Littleboy 2 has just had the mother of all tantrums. And I'm feeling just a little bit indignant, so I'm going to post this now, before I get over it....

Finally getting the chance to look at my copy of Observer Woman last night, as the Littleboys were splashing chaotically in the bath, I noticed that there was an article by the journalist Rachel Cooke, entitled 'Dummy Mummy'. Oh, that'll be interesting, I thought. Rachel Cooke is a journalist whose stuff I usually enjoy; she writes witty, incisive reviews, and did a brilliant intervew with Peaches Geldof recently, in which she managed to imply what a nightmare the girl is without actually saying it.

Anyway, Rachel has this week written the following article, which I suggest you read, but if you can't be bothered here is a summary: mothers these days are smug, obsessed with their offspring and can't talk about anything else. They do 'mad' things like 'post chummy comments on the Alpha Mummy blog', bore on about their children at parties and obsess about which stroller to buy. (No doubt spending their time blogging about parenthood would be regarded as equally crazy). They can't talk about anything except breastfeeding, Annabel Karmel, baby gates and In the Night Garden.

Now Rachel does not have children, nor does she wish to. And that is absolutely fine. I don't blame anyone for not wanting kids; with an over-populated planet, it's frankly a good thing.

But I've got to take issue with what she says. Yes, we all know that there are parents who are baby bores. Who obsess about every detail, worry that little Harry might eat something not organic, drive everyone nuts with their rigid adherence to Gina Ford-type routines. And yes, they can be incredibly irritating to the childless; I have heard of one couple who insisted that their childless friends find, and put up blackout curtains for their baby when they came to stay at their house.

And yet I still found this a strange attack, smacking of a lack of thought about her fellow females; those of us who have chosen to have children. Rachel cites one friend who told her that she 'doesn't get to see films any more' now that she's had kids. Well, neither do I. And there's a good reason for this. When you have to pay a baby sitter £8 an hour in order to go out with your partner, the last thing you want to do is go to the cinema, sit there not talking to each other for a few hours, and then come out to find all the restaurants are shut because it's 11pm, and anyway, your baby sitter needs to go You wait for the DVD.

She says that when she goes round to see friends with newborns, she waits to see whether they 'ask me a proper question (and really listen to the answer), or make mention of the outside world and their own temporary absence from it' - only then, she says, will she know that they haven't turned into a total nutter who posts comments on Alpha Mummy. Well, yes. It is like that. But when you've just been through labour, which may well have been the most traumatic experience of your life so far, and are just about coming to terms with sleep deprivation, a baby who won't feed and a Stasi-like health visitor, you don't particularly want to discuss last night's episode of Spooks or your friend's love life. Littleboy 1 was born during the 2005 General Election. I normally love elections, but after three nights in the postnatal ward from hell l I was just too damned tired, stressed out and brain-dead to take in any of the coverage. But bear with your friends, Rachel. They will recover.

Also in the line of fire are women writing reviews of buggies and strollers on mothers' websites (which she seems to hold in particular contempt). Back in her mum's day, she argues, there were just two brands and you got on with it. Well, I am sure that is true. But the world has moved on. There is so much choice now over everything we buy - whereas our mums could have gone to Littlewoods or M&S for their clothes, we have a bewildering array of retailers to choose from. They couldn't buy olive oil - we can choose from about 40 brands. Yes, we live in a consumerist society where we have everything and, as Rachel says, half the world starves. But are mothers any worse than anyone else?

And with buggies (even the cheap ones, Rachel) costing hundreds of pounds, simply picking one randomly out of the Mothercare catalogue is not realistic. If you were buying a new TV or stereo system, you would probably read some reviews first, so why not have reviews of pushchairs? Hell, we read book reviews before buying a £5.99 paperback (and you write them, Rachel). Why not get worked up about the different brands? After all, you're going to spend the next three years of your life pushing the damn thing around, you might as well get something you like.

I could go on. But I won't. Becauase next to this article is another one, by Polly Vernon, in defence of her desire not to have children. Polly (who is NOT a hack whose work I generally admire) also complains about what she calls 'the pampering cult of Bugaboo-wielding, Mumsnet-bothering masses'. From a woman who usually writes mind-numbingly dull articles about her obsession with ripped jeans, rockstars or diets (she once wrote an incredibly obnoxious piece on how she loves being thin) I find this bizarre. We've all got to obsess about something, love. And when, for a few years, your whole life is taken up with child-rearing, it's no wonder you want to talk about it with other women on web sites. Why is it any different from posting bitchy comments about Lily Allen on Popbitch?

Being a parent is bloody hard work. Rewarding, yes, I love my children desperately and I'd never have chosen otherwise, but it's tough, it does overtake your whole life, at least for a few years, even if you still work, as I do. That's why women 'bore on' about it. It's not because they had kids late and are just sodding grateful. It's not because they are smug and self-obsessed. It's a fact of life. So stop tearing a strip off mothers, Rachel and Polly. We're an easy target, so save your vitriol for someone else and have some feminist fellow-feeling.

Anyway, I must go now; got to post chummy comments on Alpha Mummy, bore my friends about childbirth and discuss strollers....

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The name game

Littleboy 1 is a little confused about names. He now knows his own surname, and takes great delight in telling people. But for a while he also insisted that he was the only person called that. When we told him that his brother is also called P___ and Mummy, and Daddy, he got very cross, shouting, “No, I am the only P___.”

He also surprised me the other day by coming out with MY Christian name – not Mummy – as I poured myself a cup of tea. “Is that tea for you, [NappyValleyGirl?]” he enquired rather mischievously.

Yes, I replied, that is my name. I tried valiantly to keep a straight face, but it didn’t work. He then laughed hysterically for about five minutes.

Another day, he was at soft play, and got talking to another child’s nanny who was sitting in the ball pit with them (it’s only ever the nannies who do that, I notice). He had obviously told her his name, and then I saw him pointing over to me and shouting, at the top of his lungs:

“And THAT’s Mummy P____.”

Cover blown then.

I suppose it must be weird, working out for the first time that Mummy and Daddy possess their own, separate identities. And not only that, but everyone in the family has the same surname. (It must be even more confusing if you’re not married or haven’t changed your name – I still use my maiden name for work, and have bank cards in both names, so it gets confusing even for me at times....)

Another reason I am pondering names is that one of my friends, who gets a fair bit of mention in this blog, wants a Name. She doesn’t just want to be referred to as a kind friend or a local friend any more - she wants to be elevated to Named Character Status.

I've been struggling with this, I admit. The Doctor and the Littleboys were easily monikered, and are fairly self-explanatory. (The Doctor also gives me a little frisson of amuseument, as I picture him dressed like Doctor Who, holding a sonic screwdriver and about to save the world from Daleks).

But how can I sum up my friend? She’s not a Yummy Mummy; no, she’s far too down to earth for that. And she’s certainly not a Slummy Mummy. She could be Nightingale Triangle Mummy (because that’s the estate-agenty type name for the area in which she lives). But that ain’t particularly snappy.

Aha. I know. I recall the time I met her in Waitrose on about the 28th of December. “I’ve just bought all my Christmas cards and wrapping paper,” she exclaimed. “For next year!”

This was not untypical. This woman plans ahead. She thinks about her daughters’ birthday parties several months in advance (unlike me, who sends out invitations the week before, and is then surprised that no-one can come). At Christmas, she had organised so many fun, interesting outings for her kids to do by about November, that when I suggested we might go to the theatre with the children in December, she had to confess that they had two theatre trips booked that weekend already. And this is someone with two children under four who works four days a week; so, I think you will agree, impressive?

So I think I will call her Stupendously Organised Mummy. I hope she's happy with that.

Monday 2 February 2009

Major snow event

So the snow has finally reached Nappy Valley - the worst since 1992, they say. (I seem to remember that as the year my Dad got the car stuck in a snow drift in Suffolk - he retrieved it two days later, to find that someone had nicked the cigarette lighter, but nothing else..).

We woke up to dire reports of a 'major snow event' on Radio 4. (Obviously, it can't just be called a heavy snowfall any more, just as a recession has to be a 'credit crunch', banks have to be 'toxic', and government departments 'not fit for purpose'.) No buses running in London. Schools closed. Utter chaos. There could be (deep breath) 15 cm of snow.. In the midst of this desperate natural disaster, The Doctor managed to take the tube to work, and rang me to report that he'd arrived ten minutes early.......

I decided to take the Littleboys up to Clapham Common to make a snowman, having managed to scrape enough snow off the car to heave the double buggy out of the boot. Ploughing it along the streets in several inches of the white stuff was at least a good workout: a few hours later and I feel as if I've been cross country skiing.

The Common was heaving, and looked a little like a Lowry painting with hundreds of coat-clad figures milling about on a pale background. As the Littleboys gleefully built their snowman, accesorising him with Mummy's hat, I took in the unfamiliar scene.

Round here, there are two fairly dominant tribes - the twentysomething professionals, many of them antipodean, and the middle class Nappy Valley families - and clearly, no-one from either group had gone to work. There was a festive atmosphere; it wasn't so much children throwing snowballs, as crowds of twenty and thirtysomething Aussies and Kiwis running around pelting each other, building six foot high snowmen and piling into the local cafes to drink steaming lattes. Meanwhile, for the Nappy Valley types, it was as if the half term ski trip had come early. Whole families were parading around in their Killy and Helly Hansen gear; at least one family were actually on skis. The cafe on the Common, which has always slightly reminded me of a mountainside ski cafe, with its tiled floor, rickety chairs and canteen style service, was heaving with people drinking hot chocolate and braying as if they were in Meribel.

It was also far too busy to get a seat, so I told Littleboys that they would have to go without their usual pitstop. This did not go down well. Then it started snowing again. And I found myself in a blizzard, in the middle of the Common, with two cold boys and a snow-caked buggy. We charged back towards the high street, the previously fluffy snowflakes suddenly sharp on our faces.

As we emerged from our polar expedition into the relative sanctuary of another cafe, I struggled to heave the pram through the door. Both boys were also wailing by this point. As per usual, not one person attempted to help; they were all too busy making the most of their day off with their chocolat chaud and (quite possibly) their piste maps. The place was also packed out for a Monday morning; well, it's good to know that someone's profiting from the major snow event. Defeated, I turned to go and brave the Arctic conditions again.

But help sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of quarters. It was a twenty something Aussie girl who came to our rescue, and let us share her table. "I know what it's like," she explained. "I look after my little nephew sometimes."

Talk about the kindness of strangers.....